Shell & Coast Guard are towing rig

Salvage teams have pulled Shell’s grounded drilling rig within 9 miles of a protected bay, after successfully attaching a tow line to the vessel and freeing it from a rocky Alaskan island’s coast overnight.

The 266-foot Kulluk rig began its 30-mile trek from Sitkalidak Island to Kiliuda Bay shortly after midnight in Alaska. Once at Kiliuda Bay, officials anticipate the rig will be anchored, surrounded with oil-collecting boom and undergo further assessments.

As of 7:30 a.m. Alaska Standard Time, the rig was traveling north at about 4 miles per hour and was located about 9.6 nautical miles from the planned anchoring point, according to Shell, the Coast Guard and others operating under a “unified command.”

A 10-person salvage crew and a Shell representative were on the Kulluk, as Shell’s chartered anchor handling ship Aiviq pulls it to Kiliuda Bay.

Marine tracking data suggests the Kulluk could arrive by midday. Unified Command officials declined to give an estimated arrival time.

Workers on an oil spill response vessel have used infrared equipment to monitor the floating rig and have seen “no initial signs of a discharge of oil in the water,” the unified command said. Fresh monitoring of fuel tanks on the Kulluk since the rig was refloated matches earlier data, indicating no changes that could be a sign of a leak or damage, the officials said.

Some 150,000 gallons of diesel and other petroleum products are on board the Kulluk, mostly fuel locked inside tanks inside the rig.

The Kulluk got fresh scrutiny after salvage teams were able to get it floating again around 10:10 p.m. Alaska Standard Time on Sunday. The Coast Guard is planning to fly over the rig and its tow path as soon as daylight hits, around 9:45 a.m. in the area.

“That will be a chance for us to get a good view of the vessel and check to make sure there isn’t any pollution,” said Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley, a unified command spokesperson. “We’ve had vessels around the Kulluk all night, but we still haven’t had that chance to do an (aerial assessment).”

It was not clear precisely how salvage crews were able to free the rig, especially since they weren’t planning to remove weight from the vessel beforehand. The timing suggests they took advantage of high tide conditions to pull the Kulluk from the rock and gravel seabed.

A flotilla is making the journey with the gigantic rig, including three Seattle-based ocean-going tugs and a Coast Guard cutter. Two oil spill response vessels were standing by after the Kulluk began floating for the first time in a week.

The Kulluk beached along Sitkalidak Island on New Year’s Eve, following a failed five-day fight to tow the rig to safe harbor amid four-story waves and 70-mph winds. Shell had been using its chartered anchor-handling vessel, Aiviq, to tow the unpropelled conical drilling rig across the Gulf of Alaska when the tow line broke and the Aiviq’s four engines malfunctioned on Dec. 27.

Before its ill-fated voyage, the Kulluk had been drilling the first half of an exploratory oil well in the Beaufort Sea for Shell. That work ended in October, but Shell hoped to return with the Kulluk to finish that well and drill others this summer. Shell is separately using the drillship Noble Discoverer to search for Arctic oil; it worked on a well in the Chukchi Sea last year.

There was urgency to the tow operation. Tide conditions were conducive to a rescue now, but in a few weeks, when tide levels dip lower, they wouldn’t be. There also were fears that the longer the Kulluk is stranded at Sitkalidak Island, the greater the chance that it would be further damaged and some 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel could spill.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler told reporters on Saturday that responders were walking through all of the possible scenarios for what could go wrong. But officials with the unified command refused to make those contingency plans or the tow plan available to reporters.

Responders deployed oil-collecting boom along Ocean Bay in preparation for the recovery operation. Spill response vessels are also on the scene.

Roughly 730 people were involved in the massive recovery operation, which unified command officials have stressed will be paid for by Shell.

Ships have descended on the area from as far away as Seattle to help out. Some recovery equipment was being flown across the globe. Although most equipment is already on site, responders are still waiting for a military helicopter to deliver a large generator and a tow connection.

Unified command officials said they are abiding by a wildlife protection plan and have arranged for bird rescue programs in case they are needed. Protected species observers also will be on the scene.

It is unclear whether the Kulluk can be repaired. Salvage crews on the Kulluk have discovered wave and water damage inside the rig, along with inoperable emergency generators. A number of water-tight doors were breached. One compartment, or void, surrounding the Kulluk’s inner hull also was damaged.

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